Aylan looked sadly at the two boys seated with him in the carriage. They were still moving, now down a forest path riddled with holes and large rocks. Quite often the carriage would stop and fat Ogden would have to get out and move rocks large enough to break a wheel.
“I apologize for the circumstances of our reunion, little brothers,” he said with a forced smile.
Neither of them replied. Only Bannen even glanced at him, acknowledging his woefully inadequate apology. All three of them were bound still, but Aylan hated to see such young boys tied so. They had been confused for the first day or so, but now they seemed dejected and resigned to whatever fate awaited them. James and Bannen had so many questions when they first awoke together, but Aylan’s lack of answers proved insufficient.
James had taken it the worst. He was the youngest, only eight years old. He pouted for the longest time, asking when father was coming to get them and why the ugly men had them tied up. Aylan had stopped consoling him by now, and the boy sat quietly, slumped in his seat.
Bannen took it all in stride, riding with an air of confidence one would not expect from a kidnapped ten-year-old. He is so much like father, Aylan thought. He is quite appropriately named. When Lindar, Ogden, or Bolden spoke to him, he would reply curtly and say no more than was needed. He would only slide into depression when it was only the three of them in the cabin of the carriage, saving his outward displays of strength for his captors.
“I wonder where we are going now,” Aylan thought aloud. “We left the main road hours ago.”
“Who knows,” James replied with a huff. “I don’t think I can stand being in this rickety cart much longer.”
“That is a sentiment we all share with you James,” Aylan said, a hint of weariness in his voice. They had been traveling for ages, it seemed. As best he could tell, they had been traveling southwest since they left Delinash. They could easily be in Tanagaria by now, steadily approaching the even farther away territory of Awrisia. Damn it all, he thought. It seems there is nothing I can do these days but wait.
* * * * * * * * * *
Aylan woke in the dead of night, after having found sleep at some point in their monotonous journey. He had dreamed his deceased mother was waking him frantically, shaking him to and fro. Her blue eyes were creased with worry, and her ash blonde hair was tussled as if she had been nervously running her fingers through it.
“What, what’s the-” he sat up, still trying to speak with her. When he realized it was just another dream vision, he almost broke down. I haven’t seen her since we buried her seven years ago, and haven’t spoken with her three before that, he lamented in his head. Is there nothing sacred to these damned dreams? Can I not have one fond memory to relive while I sleep?
Aylan’s thought were interrupted as he heard voices just outside the carriage. He just noticed that the carriage had finally stopped, which was quite a rarity in this horrible venture. The moon was perched high atop in the night sky and undeterred by any of the surrounding clouds, allowing Aylan to see from his door window.
“Turns out we don’t need the youngest ones for the ritual, you damned fools,” Bolden was saying. “Now we’ve given the king even more to be suspicious about.”
“The king doesn’t have a damn clue what’s going on, Bolden. If he ever realizes, I’m sure the boss will take care of it.” Lindar spat, and then added menacingly, “If he hasn’t already.”
“So I suppose we should just do whatever we want and let our employer clean up the mess, I’m sure he’d love that. You’re damned lucky that the old wizard here has a use for them, or I’d string you up right here for wasting my time.” Bolden stood there staring at Lindar, who did not have a response. “Now go get the two young ones and bring them in the shack, we have business to attend to.” He turned and strode away.
Aylan pushed his head against the window to see what Bolden was talking about, and saw a dilapidated old house, vines growing about it randomly, weaving in and out of warped boards. He had no time to study it as he saw Lindar stalking towards the carriage. Pretending to be asleep, Aylan slumped back down in his seat as the thin man wrenched open the carriage door.
“Up with the two young ones,” he hissed through his crooked teeth, shaking both James and Bannen ungently. They stirred, peering at the man through bleary eyes. “There’s an old wizard here who would love to do unspeakable things to you boys and I’m to deliver you.” The two instinctively recoiled from Lindar, sinking back in their seats, and Aylan took action.
Lindar was leaning tantalizingly close to Aylan, trying to pull both the boys out of the cabin. Suddenly the thin man found Aylan’s bound hands wrapped around his neck tightly; strangling him with the very rope he had tied the young prince with. Aylan pulled back with all his might, preventing the horrid man from making any noise beyond his meek splutters and unsuccessful gasps for air. The prince pulled him close to his own chest, Lindar’s back to Aylan. He leaned in close and looked into the eyes of the skinny dying man, saying nothing but holding his gaze. Lindar’s eyes were wide with fright and shock as he beat at Aylan frantically with his skinny arms. It was not long until he stopped resisting, and slumped lifeless into Aylan’s arms.
Aylan relaxed, his heart pounding in his chest. Now what,he thought. He leaned forward and looked out the door, but no one was there. Bolden had apparently gone into the house, and Ogden was nowhere to be seen.
Making a gesture of silence at his two younger brothers, Aylan drew out Lindar’s sword carefully and placed it between his knees. He positioned it so he could cut through his bonds and began sawing at them. It took longer than he had hoped. Lindar’s sword was a pathetic thing. Its blade was dull and impossibly short, hardly a suitable fighting weapon. It will have to do, he thought. When he finished, he freed his brothers.
“Run west into the woods,” he said, pointing in the general direction. “When I have made sure that no one will come looking for us, I will follow after you. I promise.”
They both nodded, eyes wide with surprise and a hint of fear. Aylan rolled the dead man out of the carriage and stepped out first. Still seeing no one, he motioned for his brothers to go. They hurried out of the vehicle and ran as softly as they could, looking over their shoulders frequently as they neared the tree line.
Aylan dragged Lindar’s corpse behind the carriage, out of the line of sight of anyone approaching from the house. He concealed himself in a small patch of unruly bushes just between the carriage and the shack and waited. Soon one of those bastards is going to check on Lindar, he reasoned. Hopefully one at a time. He clutched the dead man’s sword hard, and gritted his teeth.
The young prince got his wish. Fat Ogden came storming out of the house, undoubtedly after being berated by Bolden. His face was red and his belly bounced as he strode down the pathway steps towards the carriage.
“What the hell’s takin’ so long with ye, Lindar? We be done with the boys, get ’em and let’s drop ’em off!” He stomped all the way to the carriage angrily, looking this way and that for Lindar.
Aylan let him see his dead cohort before he struck. The fat man cried out in dismay as he turned around to see the cause of his friend’s death. Aylan was there, sword poised to strike. Ogden fell dead, still reaching for the two handed sword on his back.
The door of the house crashed open once again, and out rushed Bolden. I should’ve slit his throat, Aylan thought, cursing his pride. The mercenary had doubtlessly heard Ogden’s cry. I wanted that fat son of a bitch to see who killed him, though.
“Oh my,” Bolden declared as he surveyed the scene. “I see the young prince has a bit of a fight in him after all.”
Aylan did not speak. He deftly stepped back and pulled Ogden’s two hander from the dead man’s back and adopted his fighting stance. This weapon was much better than Lindar’s had been, but this one was no gem either. Its balance was fair at best and its blade a bit dull, but it would have to do.
Bolden drew his own sword, a magnificent thing for a sellsword to carry. It shone in the moonlight, light dancing off its razor sharp edges as he twirled it menacingly. The man was also wearing boiled leather armor spliced with chain mail, while Aylan only had his dirty cloth tunic to protect him.
“If you put the sword down now and get back in the carriage, I promise I’ll go easy on you,” the confident mercenary said, sneering at Aylan.
“The only thing I’ll promise you is an agonizing end,” Aylan spat on the ground angrily. With that, he rushed into combat.
Their swords rang loudly as they clashed high, then low, then high again. Aylan was determined to win, and called upon all the experience of his training he could muster. Two handed swords had always been his favorite weapon to train with. He only wished he had his own to fight with. He could feel the imperfect blade tugging at his muscles as he parried and struck out. Still, he did not tire, fueling himself with the knowledge that he had no choice but to win this contest.
Bolden danced back and forth, easily parrying Aylan’s attacks and countering with his own, yet landing none himself. “I must say, you are a better swordsman than I would have given you credit for. Not good enough, mind you, but fair.”
Aylan only snarled angrily in response.
“You do know what I’m going to do to your brothers when I catch them, don’t you?” The sellsword taunted as they fought. “I may even make you watch as I slit their throats.”
Aylan came on stronger, striking harder now but trying not to let his emotions interfere. He scored a light hit on Bolden’s chest when the sellsword could not parry in time and had to leap back, but it did little more than scratch his armor. I’ll have to mix it up somehow, Aylan thought. I can’t keep fighting him like this.
They continued to fight, with Aylan trying all the routines he knew to draw the older mercenary into leaving an opening, but none worked. Regardless of how wide Aylan would draw the man’s sword out, he would always be able to return it to parry the next strike.
Then the unthinkable happened. Aylan brought his sword up to block, and Ogden’s sword snapped in two underneath the force of Bolden’s attack. The mercenary’s blade deflected slightly from the impact and cut towards Aylan’s head. Aylan did not have time to move completely out of the way, and caught a harsh blow from the flat of Bolden’s sword on the left side of his head.
The sellsword grinned wickedly, anticipating victory. Aylan staggered from the blow, cursing the lousy blade that had failed him. He still held the broken blade in front of him, now half its original length and nigh useless. Bolden came on still, his smile angering Aylan even further. The young prince still managed to keep him at bay with half a sword for a few strokes, but he knew he would have to find a way to disarm his opponent or he would soon perish.
When Bolden drew back for an especially vicious cut, Aylan acted. The sellsword was no longer holding back for defense, knowing he would not have to parry any counters, and put his full force into the stroke. Aylan pretended another stagger, and fell to his left. Bolden’s sword cut just above Aylan’s head as he fell, and the sellsword stumbled forward as the force of his swing pulled him off balance. Aylan’s foot shot out quickly and tripped the mercenary up, sending him sprawling to the ground.
In a flash Aylan leapt atop the fallen mercenary, pinning Bolden’s sword hand to the ground with his knee. Before the sellsword could draw another breath Aylan pounded the hilt of his broken sword into the man’s face repeatedly. Blood and bits of teeth sprayed from Bolden’s mouth as Aylan pounded away in a fit of rage. The mercenary groaned, losing consciousness.
“Is that it?” Aylan roared, his eyes shining wildly in the moonlight. “Where is that confidence now, you murderous bastard? You have anything to bloody say now?”
“Enough.” A voice spoke quietly and coldly from behind him. Aylan spun quickly to see who the voice belonged to and was met by a hurtling ball of crackling black energy. The dark spheroid collided with Aylan with a harsh physical and mental impact, knocking him away from his fallen foe and disorienting him. Aylan lay on his back, groaning in pain and confusion. He gazed up at his attacker groggily, hardly comprehending what he saw.
A bent old man stood above him, tall and imposing even in his advanced age. His once powerful shoulders drooped a bit underneath his dark robes. In his right hand he carried a long staff, adorned at the top by polished human skull with gemmed eyes. Aylan could have sworn that one of the skull’s eyes winked at him, although he supposed it could have been the moonlight, or possibly even head trauma. The man’s pale skin seemed to glow where the light from the full moon hit him, as if reacting to its cold rays.
“You will make an excellent sacrifice, you noble little fool.” The man knelt by Aylan, peering into his stunned eyes. Aylan was fighting unconsciousness as best he could, but the old man laid his skull staff to the prince’s forehead and whispered something unintelligible. Aylan felt shadows twirling about in his mind, grasping at him, attacking his mind. He struggled against them momentarily, then was overcome by the unfamiliar attack and slumped in unconsciousness. That must be the old wizard Bolden was talking about, Aylan thought as he faded away.